So, What Am I Doing Here? [Part 1]
The past several weeks I’ve been sharing a view of Bhutan as an outsider living and working in country for a period of time. But in between writing to you these past weeks, I’ve been examining the truth in my heart as to why I am here. My findings have been intriguing as is the crux of this entire journey. But lets go meander a bit to put some puzzle pieces together, which will then bring us to the present…
[In Part 2 I’ll give details...]
The question I get asked here in Bhutan is—what NGO are you with? And prior to Expedition Bhutan, what I often got asked was—what group is organizing your travel experience to Bhutan? The answers to both are—Me. I’m here volunteering with the Bhutan Olympic Committee, which is the ultimate result of an idea that I generated several years ago about how I wanted to engage with this country.
In 2000 I was invited to be on an adventure racing team for the Raid Gauloises in Tibet and Nepal. The event started in the Tibetan plateau at about 14,000 feet on mountain bikes. We traveled through the Himalaya range at 17,000 feet, then dropped into Nepal via The Friendship Bridge before crossing the entire country and finishing on the border of India and Nepal after several events, lots of rivers and hundreds of miles. The race was arduous and uniquely beautiful, but what I remember most were the distinct interactions with the various cultures and people in this part of the world. I vowed to myself that I would come back to the Himalayan region and experience it in some sort of cultural immersion/physical endeavor.
Prior to and after this 2000 event I not only studied up on the general area, but started studying Buddhism as well. In my readings in both arenas the country of Bhutan popped up, albeit infrequently. The more I read about Bhutan, the more magical and inaccessible it was described—and the more I desired to experience it. Partly because I’m someone who wants to check out whats behind the ‘Do Not Enter’ sign. And partly because, for a travel savvy person it seems logical that if its difficult to get information on an entire country (or even a good map)—it MUST be an interesting place to visit. That combined with its geographical location, butting up against these massive handsome peaks, and its Buddhist tradition, caused it to become a travel obsession of mine for quite a few years.
I started my research via a straight up approach. I.e. – If I want to cross the entire country of Bhutan running and biking what do I need to do to make that happen and how much will it cost? These questions brought me to gaining a deep understanding of travel restrictions and travel costs in Bhutan (and why they are in place)—and that to pay as a tourist for such an endeavor for, one person, would be about $60,000. Kind of an expensive vacation…
Due to the price tag, I put the idea on a shelf for a while (in plain view), and started working on a similar project in Pakistan. When the wheels were just starting to turn with my Pakistan idea, I had a conversation with James Fitzgerald, a New Yorker who does business in Bhutan. I happened to mention to him that I had this idea about how I wanted to engage with Bhutan. He was so intrigued with my spark that he decided he would take it upon himself to introduce me to some governmental agencies to see if I could generate a partnership to support the idea. James was not only instrumental in introducing me to the Bhutan Olympic Committee (BOC), he would go on to become an integral resource for our planning. James is one of the reasons I have been able to experience this country the way I have. It seems so fitting that we now share a mutual love for the country and the people.
So the BOC was interested in supporting Expedition Bhutan and our film creation. They were interested in not only generating a deeper promotion for sport in Bhutan via our never-been-done endeavor, but to garner support from us in helping them develop sport and sporting events in their country. Though I did offer detailed ideas on the front end as to how I could support them, the BOC wasn’t interested in fully defining these ideas prior to our Team and Film Team touching down in Bhutan last Fall. Our entire partnership was established on a virtual hand shake deal.
Over a 14 month time period, me, became a team of 4. Then an additional Film Team of 4. Then another crew of 10 who would come to Bhutan to either support or sponsor the Expedition while joining us on the front end of our trip. Our entire international Team joined forces with a few of the BOC staff (led by Karma) as well as a fluctuating number of Royal Bhutan Army and Royal Body Guards who were assigned to us via His Royal Highness, Prince Jigyel Ugyen Wangchuck, the President of the BOC.
We did not ask for this incredible level of support in country. It was gifted to us. Partly because this is the way things are done when one travels as a special guest here. And partly because the BOC was as committed as we were to seeing out our journey in a successful and safe manner. Nothing about our partnership was ever put in writing or signed. They trusted that we would honor our relationship, just as we trusted that when we stepped off the plane in Paro that logistics would be in place, enough, for us to execute a solid version of our vision.
The rare and raw beauty in this type of trust, is so seldom if ever experienced cross culturally between people who don’t know each other (or people who do). It is ultimately the reason I am here now and have committed myself to this country and people. I am honored that they believed in me and I in them, so that we could support each other in playing out our visions and dreams. That is a purely beautiful relationship to nurture.
It would have been easy for me to come home from Expedition Bhutan, acknowledge that “I owed them big” and then find a way to offer that back virtually. But what I took away from the Expedition wasn’t that we were engaged in a give and take business deal. But that a special friendship had been bonded which could potentially support MANY people, Bhutanese and non-Bhutanese, in engaging in experiences physically and culturally with the potential to change the shape of peoples lives. I now had an opportunity to not only help support athletes and aspiring athletes in this budding country, but create experiences for those on the outside to come and taste even a tiny flavor of what I was offered during our Expedition. Do I sound like the young university student, wonderfully naive in thinking I will change the world? For us 50somethings who’ve been around for a while, yes! But its all quite real.
I am always the first to recognize that being an elite athlete is a self-ish endeavor, if we are to play it out to its max. But I also knew early on in my athletic life that with my dual gifts of a bit of physical fortitude combined with a massive work ethic, I could generate opportunities to offer that combo up to others in an inspirational and supportive manner. Its only then that my meager gifts have an opportunity to flourish and prosper for others—which has always been what I think we are actually here for. And I tell my clients—if you are taking time to be your best as an athlete, you are taking time to generate a sense of personal growth that can be of service to others in all communities in your life—if you choose.
So I realized after Expedition Bhutan, that I was faced with an opportunity to be of service not to one client, or a clinic group, or a team, or even an audience listening to me speak. But that I was faced with the gift of supporting an entire nation in one aspect of its development. And that the most amazing thing about it all, was that my support had no contingencies nor expectations placed on its outcome by the Bhutanese. That I would be engaging in truly unconditional mutual support.
Because after rolling out one red carpet after another as we crossed their country inch by inch, the BOC kindly, graciously, and with no strings attached still just hoped for our support. That is so incredibly Buddhist of them.
So I’m here because despite the magnitude of what they offered our Expedition, they aren’t requiring me to be. That is one of the foundational pieces to a healthy and flourishing long term relationship. And I’m here because I believe in the positive impact of sport on people and if I can affect even a handful of uninitiated athletes in this country, that the long ranging effect in their communities and over time the entire nation, could be priceless. And I’m here because its caused me to massively alter my life to do so, and the result has been one of the most disruptive, positive and calm inducing choices I’ve made in a very long time. As Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Committee (yes there is one) puts the word out here, I seem to be picking up some of their vibe.
But the underlying crux of why I’m here is because last Fall I fell in love with a country. Most of the time this type of love doesn’t make much sense and may cause us to make outwardly crazy choices in a world that craves stability and security. But in the end when the crazy choices feel calm and right, we realize that its only this type of love that can reshape how our heart touches the rest of the planet as we move through it—and indefinitely.
Stay tuned for Part 2…
Tashi Delek from Bhutan,